Happy Birthday, Ludwig #BTHVN2020

So today is the day – Beethoven was born 250 years ago. At least, we think that date is correct; he was baptised on 17 December 1770, and it was customary to baptise babies within 24 hours of their birth.

Bonn’s newspaper today marks the anniversary; but Bonn is currently in lockdown, along with the rest of Germany and much of Europe. To hear Beethoven’s music at the present time in some countries, there are no current live performances in public venues; listeners must rely on radio, television, downloads, CD/record collections and the internet – or, better still, play it themselves on instruments at home.

But let us go back to previous anniversaries; I have written about the 75th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, when his statue was unveiled in Bonn in 1845, and Liszt’s involvement, including the composition of a cantata in Beethoven’s honour.

What happened in 1870, 100 years after Beethoven’s birth? Was Liszt again involved in a celebratory concert?

Indeed, yes, in Weimar, and Liszt’s letters tell the story. To set the scene – the The Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (ADMV) (General German Music Association) was the first national German musical association, founded in 1861 by Liszt and Franz Brendel. Its aim was to embody the musical ideals of the New German School of music and to promote the music of gifted composers. Its yearly gatherings were known as the Tonkünstler Versammlungen. In 1870, the four-day gathering celebrated Beethoven as well as composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns, who was invited to attend for the premiere of his cantata, Les noces de Prométhée .

The final festival concert on May 29th 1870 included the premiere of a second Liszt cantata in honour of Beethoven; “Zur Säkularfeier Beethovens” for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, choir and orchestra. It was composed in 1869-1870, with the text by German poet and literary historian, Adolf Stern; it was a revision and re-orchestration of Liszt’s first Beethoven cantata. Eduard Lassen had composed a Beethoven Overture which he conducted; Liszt conducted Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with his pupil Carl Tausig as soloist, and, after the interval, Liszt conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

A Who’s Who of leading musicians of the time appears in Liszt’s correspondence and took part in different concerts in the festival. They include – Carl Rieder, a Leipzig choral conductor; one of his students at the Leipzig Conservatory was Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen. Eduard Lassen replaced Liszt as the court music director in Weimar in 1858. Karl Müller-Hartung was appointed music director in Weimar in 1865, becoming an important figure in the musical life of the city. Hans Feodor von Milde was an Austrian operatic tenor.

Ferdinand David was an experienced concertmaster (leader of the orchestra) in Leipzig, Hellmesberger a concertmaster in Vienna.

Hans von Bülow was a notable conductor and pianist, and he married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, from whom he was later divorced.

Let’s follow the story … the date and place where each letter was written follow Liszt’s signature at the conclusion.

To C. F. Kahnt, the Music Publisher in Leipzig

… At the end of next week I will send you the piano-forte score of the Beethoven Cantata, and write full particulars to Riedel.

By the middle of April I hope to reach Weimar. Best thanks for sending the Ave maris stella—and in all friendliness I remain yours,


Rome, February 14th, 1870

To Herr Gille, councillor of justice

Dear Friend,

The best thing I have to tell you today is that we shall soon see each other again. At the beginning of April I shall visit Bülow in Florence, and then go direct to Weimar.

Last week I had a correspondence with Riedel about matters of the Tonkunstler-Versammlung. The most important points are as follows:—The utmost economy that is possible to making a perfectly suitable orchestra and chorus. The spaces at our disposal in Weimar (churches, theater and refreshment room) will not allow of any great expenditure as regards the personnel. It is to be hoped that Müller-Hartung can obtain a respectable contingent for the Beethoven Mass, which will lessen the number of outside co-operators; and I in like manner reckon chiefly on the Weimar Vocal Union for the more important numbers of the concert programme – Psalm by Schulz-Beuthen, Prometheus by Saint-Saëns, my Beethoven Cantata, etc. The arrangement of the orchestra is to be as it was at the Carl August Festival and at the Tonkunstler-Versammlung of ’61 – 10 first violins, 6 to 7 double basses, etc. Riedel conducts Beethoven’s Mass; Lassen the concerts in the theater; and Müller-Hartung my Cantata. Conzertmeister David and Director Hellmesberger will preside over the 1st violins. Both gentlemen will also determine about the performance of the Beethoven Quartet. Any other special violin virtuoso would be superfluous this time. Riedel must arrange the distribution of the solo parts of the Beethoven Mass according as he thinks best. Milde only requires, in my Cantata,

“Dieser Brave sei verpflichtet
Das zu thun, was wir gedichtet.”

[“May this brave one be constrained
That to do which we ordained.”]

I flatter myself, by-the-bye, that Milde will also find a pleasure in the “Sternen-Cantabile”—

[Here, Liszt illustrates with a musical score excerpt where the words “Viel tausend halten nachtig” are sung. It contained the Cantabile in question for Milde from Liszt’s Beethoven Cantata.]

Riedel asks me who shall play the pianoforte?

If our meeting were at Jena I should decidedly invite Bülow to do it; he is the veritable Beethoven player and interpreter, the one who knows and who can do [Kenner und Konner]; but unfortunately the shades of Dingelstedt and Gutzkow warn him from Weimar’s doors…

Meanwhile there is no hurry about the choice of a pianist (he or she). Only arrange the principal things in a suitable manner, the chorus, orchestra, solo singers and the Beethoven Quartet; all the rest will soon be arranged after my arrival at Weimar in the middle of April.

Yours most faithfully,

F. Liszt

Villa d’Este, February 26th, 1870

(PS) The piano arrangement of my Cantata must be written out again, and cannot therefore be sent off for 8 or 10 days. The entire work lasts about three-quarters of an hour. I am so far ready with it, that there are only two or three more passages to be instrumented.

To Camille Saint-Saëns

Dear Friend,

The rehearsals of your “Les noces de Prométhée” (Marriage of Prometheus) are proceeding well at Weimar and Jena; we shall pay particular attention to the 4 harps, the saxophones, etc. But what is of the greatest consequence is yourself. I have announced your coming at the Court and in the town. A revoir then! Try to be here on the 24th, [on the 27th May, 1870, Saint-Saëns’ name appeared on the programme of these concerts. He also appeared as a pianist, and Liszt played with him at a Matinee on two grand pianos] – and believe me yours ever in sincere friendship,

F. Liszt

Weimar, May 12th, 1870

Volatile Facts About Franz Liszt, The Playboy Genius

Had you been bidding at a Sotheby’s auction in 2017, with £2,000 to spare, you could have bought Liszt’s letter of 17 June 1870 to his publisher about the cantata – ZUR SÄKULARFEIER BEETHOVENS, written after the event, and, quoting from the online catalogue – providing him with information concerning the publication of the cantata, noting that there are a few things to re-engrave in the vocal score and to alter in the tenth plate, instructing him to engrave the score’s vocal parts as they appear in the vocal score, giving him details of the format and the dedication, stating that further instructions will be passed to him through Riedel, who is expected on Sunday, and asking for two copies of the Goethe March to be sent to Schuberth (“…Im Clavier Auszug derselben sind noch ein paar kleine Dinge nachzustechen…”)

Tausig’s performance of the concerto was described as ‘great and mighty’, and Liszt’s account of the 9th Symphony electrified everyone. The concert was a fitting tribute to Beethoven, whom Liszt had met in person, and a marvellous celebration of Beethoven’s centenary.

So Happy Birthday, dear Ludwig. Here’s to your 275th Anniversary in 2045 …


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Musical Statues

All seems calm in this 1845 painting of the Beethoven monument in Bonn. A few onlookers, a random dog, a little girl, ladies with parasols …

But the scenes at its unveiling in August of that year could not have been more different.  Huge crowds, limited accommodation, royalty – including a young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – and a plethora of composers: Spohr, Meyerbeer, Berlioz, and Liszt, whose energy and drive enabled the project to reach a successful conclusion, 75 years after the year of Beethoven’s birth.

The project to erect a statue of Beethoven in his birthplace stalled in 1839 due to lack of funds, and the Beethoven commitee in Bonn announced that it had failed to raise enough money  despite an international appeal. An outraged Liszt wrote to the committee offering to make up the funds needed himself, and he started ‘crowd-funding’ nineteenth-century style, donating not only private funds but giving benefit concerts in aid of the venture, and leaving his partner Marie d’Agoult in Italy in order to return to Vienna to start the process. (That didn’t go down well.) 

A notable fund-raiser was the concert in April 1841 at the Paris Conservatoire where Liszt collaborated as pianist in a performance of Beethoven’s violin sonata known as the ‘Kreutzer’. Liszt also performed as soloist in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto with an orchestra conducted by Berlioz; Berlioz conducted  Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Who was the critic who wrote up the concert in the Dresden news? Richard Wagner, who himself wrote a book about Beethoven published in 1870, the year of Beethoven’s centenary.

The three-day 1845 Festival which accompanied the unveiling of the monument was a vast enterprise including fireworks, banquets, a ball and concerts, for which a temporary hall big enough to seat everyone had to be built in record time – the Beethovenhalle, pictured below in the Illustrated London News of that year. In Le journal des Débats, Berlioz wrote up the event. 

Liszt conducted Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and again performed as soloist in the ‘Emperor’ concerto as well as composing and conducting a cantata for the occasion – 

 As Liszt was the guest of honour, he was invited to make a speech at the final banquet. An uproar broke out when he mistakenly omitted to mention the French in his introductory acknowledgements. It was the last night of the festival; the champagne had flowed; national pride was aroused. In spite of a committee member mounting the table vainly trying to restore order, followed by the dancer Lola Montez (below) doing likewise, both were howled down and the evening ended in disarray, accompanied by a huge thunderstorm after three days of sweltering heat and a variety of concerts, some of which were very long … but the objective was achieved. Beethoven was honored, and the statue remains as a memorial to him – and, indeed, to the man who made it happen – Liszt.

On a personal note, today marks the tenth anniversary of my blog.  The first post, written on 24/10/2010, was Any Excuse to Play Liszt – and yes, I still find Any Excuse to Play Liszt, and to write about him, too. Many thanks to all who have read and – I hope – enjoyed my Notes From a Pianist.
Continue reading

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Kiss and Tell – When Beethoven Met Liszt

Above is a portrait of Beethoven, painted in 1823 by Waldmüller, the year when Beethoven and Liszt met. Fifty-two years later, when in his sixties in 1875, Liszt gave the following spoken account of the meeting to his pupil Ilka Horowitz-Barnay. This version is from Paul Nettl’s Beethoven Encyclopedia.

‘I was about eleven years of age when my venerated teacher Czerny took me to Beethoven. He had told the latter about me a long time before, and had begged him to listen to me play some time. Yet Beethoven had such a repugnance to infant prodigies that he had always violently objected to receiving me. Finally, however, he allowed himself to be persuaded by the indefatigable Czerny, and in the end cried impatiently, “In God’s name, then, bring me the young Turk!” It was ten o’clock in the morning when we entered the two small rooms in the Schwarzspanierhaus [Liszt made a mistake in the address, since in April 1823 Beethoven was living at Oberepfarrgasse 60, Kothgasse] which Beethoven occupied; I somewhat shyly, Czerny amiably encouraging me. Beethoven was working at a long, narrow table by the window. He looked gloomily at us for a time, said a few brief words to Czerny and remained silent when my kind teacher beckoned me to the piano. I first played a short piece by Ries. When I had finished Beethoven asked me whether I could play a Bach fugue. I chose the C minor Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier. “And could you also transpose the Fugue at once into another key?” Beethoven asked me.

Fortunately I was able to do so. After my closing chord I glanced up. The great Master’s darkly glowing gaze lay piercingly upon me. Yet suddenly a gentle smile passed over the gloomy features, and Beethoven came quite close to me, stooped down, put his hand on my head, and stroked my hair several times.” A devil of a fellow,” he whispered, “a regular young Turk!” Suddenly I felt quite brave. “May I play something of yours now?” I boldly asked. Beethoven smiled and nodded. I played the first movement of the C major Concerto. When I had concluded Beethoven caught hold of me with both hands, kissed me on the forehead and said gently. “Go! You are one of the fortunate ones! For you will give joy and happiness to many other people! There is nothing better or finer!” ‘

Liszt told the preceding in a tone of deepest emotion, with tears in his eyes, and a warm note of happiness sounded in the simple tale. For a brief space he was silent and then said. ‘This event in my life has remained my greatest pride – the palladium of my whole career as an artist. I tell it but very seldom and – only to good friends!’

To me, this has the ring of truth; over half a century had passed between the event and Liszt’s description of it; a factual error re an address is understandable. Some scholars question whether a ‘conversation’ with the deaf Beethoven was possible. In common with many who have a hearing loss, perhaps Beethoven’s nodding, smiling and comments occured in spite of not hearing what the little boy said; or perhaps they were tricks of Liszt’s memory. But whether or not all the facts are precise, the meeting had a profound effect on Liszt, who subsequently became a huge champion of Beethoven’s music.


Incidentally, Beethoven’s conversation book verifying the encounter, which I described in the previous post , was doctored by Schindler (pictured, right) after the event.  The comment ‘The little fellow’s free improvisations cannot yet, strictly speaking, be interpreted as such … ( ie do not amount to much) and ‘It is unfortunate that the lad is in Czerny’s hands’ were added later by Schindler, who didn’t like Czerny – or Liszt.

Below is the Kleiner Redoutensaal of the Hofburg palace in Vienna, where  Liszt performed on April 13 1823, having met Beethoven a few days before. The first volume of Alan Walker’s wonderful three volume study of Liszt (p80) contains the programme, which he tells us is on a handbill in the Vienna Historisches Museum. Liszt performed Hummel’s Third Piano Concerto Op 89 of 1819 with orchestra, Grandes Variations for piano and orchestra by Moscheles, and the orchestra hired in for the occasion, conducted by Herr Hildebrand, performed the first movement of a Mozart symphony. A vocal quartet from the Imperial Vienna Opera House sang a quartet by Conradin Kreutzer, and a Madame Schütz performed an aria by Rossini.

The final item on the original handbill announces: ‘A Free Fantasy on the pianoforte from the concert-giver, on a written theme most humbly requested from Someone in the audience.’ Liszt duly improvised on a theme provided by Someone – but the Someone was not Beethoven. He wasn’t there – and he had not provided Liszt with a theme.

It’s a cleverly constructed programme, featuring the music of the most popular living composers of the day, although the attempt to involve the greatest of them, Beethoven, did not suceed. The music of each of the featured composers subsequently wove threads in Liszt’s musical life; he later transcribed works by Mozart for solo piano as well as  Hummel’s Wind Septet and works by Rossini.

Beethoven and Liszt both appeared  as composers in print in Vaterländischer Künstlerverein at the same period.

In 1819, Anton Diabelli sent a waltz  theme to a number of composers, asking them to write a variation on it.  Beethoven wrote an entire set of thirty-three variations, published in June 1823 as Volume 1, soon after Liszt’s April concert. Among the 50 composers who wrote just one variation, included in Volume 2 of the  Vaterländischer Künstlerverein, were Kreutzer, Moscheles, Hummel – and Liszt, recommended for inclusion  by his teacher Czerny, who composed one of the fifty variations as well as a coda. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, also contributed a variation.

Curiosity prompted me to dig deeper. Apart from Mozart, who died in 1791, who were all the contemporary composers whose music featured in Liszt’s concert, and what, if any, were their links with Beethoven? And who were the other performers? What else was happening at that time?

Moscheles idolised Beethoven , and was entrusted with preparing the piano score of Fidelio for publication. He conducted the first performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in London. Hummel and Beethoven were contemporaries as young students in Vienna.  Rossini’s operas were highly popular in Vienna and the two composers met in 1822. The quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, Volume 5 of 1823, reporting about music in Vienna in December 1822, writes ‘A new German Opera, Libussa, a composition by  Conrad Kreutzer, has been performed with complete success. Every repetition has increased its fame’; and there is a also a flattering review of an earlier concert given by Liszt, held on the first of that month. It goes on to say, ‘Beethoven has just finished two [??] grand masses, and is employed upon a symphony.’ (So that’s the Missa Solemnis and the 9th Symphony.)  And in January 1823 : ‘Mad[ame] Schutz  …’ (Aha! Here she is!)… took the prinicipal character in Kreutzer’s Libussa … (amazing!) …. but failed.’  Oh dear.
Of Herr Hildebrand who conducted I can find no trace.

The publication does not mention Liszt’s concert on April 23 1823, but does report on performances of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia on the 6th April and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte  on the 14th. Musically speaking, it was quite a month in Vienna.

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It started with a kiss – or did it? Liszt and Beethoven meet in Vienna


There are various accounts of Liszt’s encounter with Beethoven in Vienna in 1823, and it’s hard to get at the truth. Least likely is Ludwig Nohl’s version of the encounter, which describes Beethoven going up to Liszt after the boy performed in the small Redoutensaal on April 13, 1823, and planting a kiss on the child’s forehead, often referred to as the Weihekuss.  We know from Beethoven’s conversation books that Beethoven did not attend the concert, according to his nephew Karl. The lithograph above, published in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of Liszt’s Viennese debut, has a lot to answer for in terms of perpetuating the myth.

The conversation books do record the actual meeting though; Liszt’s father took him to Beethoven’s apartment a few days before the concert. Present at the encounter was Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary, and in use were the notebooks in which visitors wrote comments or posed questions for the deaf  Beethoven to read before he replied verbally. So this notated conversation, although one-sided, seems a more likely source.

Quoting from Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, which also erroneously mentions the Nohl version of the Weihekuss, the exchange commences with an entry purported to be written by Liszt’s father :

I have often expressed the wish to Herr von Schindler to make your high acquaintance and am rejoiced to be able now to do so. As I shall give a concert on Sunday the 13th I must humbly beg you to give me your high presence.

The day before the concert, Schindler writes: Little Liszt has urgently requested me humbly to beg you for a theme on which he wishes to improvise at his concert tomorrow…

He will not break the seal till the time comes …

The little fellow’s free improvisations cannot yet, striclty speaking, be interpreted as such. The lad is a true pianist, but as far as improvisation is concerned, the day is still far off when one can say that he improvises.

Carl Czerny is his teacher. 
Just eleven years. 

It is unfortunate that the lad is in Czerny’s hands …

Won’t you make up for the rather unfriendly reception of the other day by coming tomorrow to little Liszt’s concert?

It will encourage the boy. Will you promise me to come?

Do come, it will certainly amuse Karl to hear how the little fellow plays.

But even this source presents doubts, as Schindler was found to have made additions to Beethoven’s notebooks; dissatisfaction with Schindler’s biography of Beethoven led Thayer to undertake his own research.

So what really happened?



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#BTHVN2020 – Open to View

It’s on the horizon; the countdown has begun. Next year marks Beethoven’s 250th Anniversary celebrations; in fact, the celebrations start in December 2019, promising  a year of exciting concerts and events worldwide.

But I’m starting early, partly inspired by a photograph of Liszt taken in his Weimar study, and by my visit to that room in 2017. The room is unchanged since Liszt lived there, complete with pianos, furniture, and personal items, including Liszt’s conducting batons, and a pair of his spectacles – pince-nez, in fact.


It’s the picture of Beethoven on the wall which has always caught my attention, and the relationship between the two composers is my starting point. They met when Liszt was a small boy; Liszt studied with Czerny, who was Beethoven’s pupil. Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s nine symphonies for solo piano – an extraordinary feat. Playing the transcriptions is even more of a feat; one of my piano teachers, Ronald Smith, recorded and regularly performed the transcription of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  Leslie Howard has recorded all of them. Liszt performed Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto in Paris, conducted by Berlioz, and performed it at the unveiling of the Beethoven monument in Bonn in 1845, where he also conducted Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

So this year I plan to look at music by Beethoven and by Liszt, and to look at Beethoven through Liszt’s eyes, and the eyes of others who knew him. The eyes have it.

#BTHVN2020 – Open to View.

Franz Liszt conducting


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Chopin, Paderewski and a Search for a Tree

The Chopin Museum in Poland is a pianist’s delight. It has two locations; one at his birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, which I didn’t visit, and the other at the Ostrogski Palace in Warsaw, where I spent several hours. There, one can gaze at letters and visiting cards, schoolboy calligraphy, drawings, Chopin‘s Paris piano, notebooks, letters from contemporaries, personal belongings and much more. Above all, there are the manuscripts; it is fascinating to see the neat, carefully beamed demisemiquavers and stratospherically high leger lines in his early works, and the later scribblings and corrections in more mature works-in-progress, as if he were in a hurry to transcribe the music from his inner ear to the page. A quick view of both museums can be seen here.

My eternal love for Chopin has been combined this year with a growing interest in the life and music of Ignace Paderewski, pianist, composer and statesman, who not only toured the world as a virtuoso pianist, but who also signed the 1919 Treaty of Versailles after WW1 as Poland’s Prime Minister. In September I performed music by Chopin and Paderewski at Highclere Castle, television’s ’Downton Abbey’, celebrating 100 years of Polish Independence. Earlier in the year, Ognisko Polskie, the Polish Hearth Club in London, formed by the British Government and the Polish government-in-exile in 1939, kindly invited me to perform Chopin and Paderewski’s music in a recital prior to a screening of the film Moonlight Sonata, in which Paderewski, appearing as himself, performs music by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, and his own Menuet Op 14 No 1. 

Everyone who learnt the piano in the early 20th century played that piece. My mother used to speak of my grandmother’s interpretation of it. Family legend says that grandma heard Paderewski in a live concert. He toured Australia in 1904 and 1927 and I’ve always felt a connection with him because of that story. A generous philanthropist, Paderewski donated the proceeds of his two final concerts in Sydney and in Melbourne in 1927 to support the orphans of the ANZAC soldiers killed in Gallipoli. 

When in Melbourne in 1904, he planted a tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens near the Victorian College of the Arts where I studied; it seemed an appropriate gesture to celebrate this year‘s centenary of Polish Independence and my current blogpost theme, The Romantic Piano, by finding the tree. So, armed with a map of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, I set off yesterday afternoon on my quest. 

‘It will be somewhere on the Central Lawn,’  said the helpful Visitor Centre receptionist, marking my map with an approximate location. ‘It‘s an Aesculus x hybrida.’ 

Ah. First, find the lawn … and what a lot of trees there are on said lawn … And what on earth does an Aesculus x hybrida look like … it must be fairly big now, 114 years old … scrabbling around beneath the low-lying branches to find the tree labels … no … no … no … YES! A true Eureka moment. 

The music critic in Brisbane’s newspaper The Telegraph wrote, on Friday 8 April 1927: ‘Paderewski plays all things magnificently, but there is a fragrance about his Chopin playing that will linger long in the memory of those privileged to hear it.’ Did grandma experience that? Who’s to know, but Paderewski’s tree still lingers on, bringing beauty to Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, and perhaps fragrance, too. 

From Australia, a very Happy New Year to you all, wherever you are on the globe.

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The Heart of the Matter – Chopin’s heart at the Church of the Holy Cross, Warsaw. And his final Mazurka…

‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. These words, from St Matthew’s gospel, are the words on the pillar of  the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw where Chopin’s heart is interred. A single red rose lay at the foot of the pillar on the day of our visit.

Unlike our visit to Chopin’s grave in Paris some years ago, we managed to escape the crowds for a few minutes’ peace in this beautiful church.

Smuggled into Warsaw by his sister Ludwicka after Chopin’s death in 1849,  and preserved in a wax-sealed jar of cognac, Chopin’s heart remains a symbol of Polish identity, a precious, revered relic from one of Poland’s greatest sons.  It was removed from the Church during the WWII Warsaw Uprising and given to the Auxiliary Bishop in Warsaw.

The photograph (right) shows its ceremonial return to the church in October 1945. But, as the 1945 photograph below shows, there wasn’t much of the church left to which it could be returned.





Happily, the church is now fully restored.

Legend says that Chopin’s final work was composed on his death-bed in Paris. My teacher, Ronald Smith, researched the piece –  Mazurka Op 68 No 4 – reconstructing it from the manuscript. Ronald published his own edition, performed it many times, and recorded it for EMI, writing in an accompanying note:

”Fontana published the Mazurka in F Minor in an incomplete form in 1855 and his claim that the work was written on the composer’s death-bed and that the master was too ill to try it out at the keyboard is almost certainly without foundation. The notable Chopin scholar, Arthur Hedley, discovered the original manuscript in private possession in France in 1951. He made an on-the-spot reconstruction of a previously missing second episode in F major and several performances were given in this version. Subsequently the manuscript passed to Poland, resulting in a scholarly publication of the entire piece in 1965  which also prints a facsimile of the manuscript. Both Hedley’s 32-bar version of the F major section and this Polish edition’s 16 bars contain serious errors – though quite different ones. At first glance Chopin’s manuscript discloses little more than a riot of alterations often cramped into any available space, their continuity only indicated by a series of spidery pointers.
Scrutiny confirms that this is no mere sketch but a complete work from which Chopin was probably too ill to make a fair copy. The Polish edition, which goes a long way to reveal formerly hidden subtleties in the outer section, takes a disastrous short-cut in the F major episode. Hedley’s version is correct in its overall shape, but simplifications of harmony and register suggest that he was obliged to complete his reconstruction from memory. The version that appears ….[below]… is based exclusively on Chopin’s manuscript, the evidence having been painstakingly sifted in the light of Chopin’s other compositions.”

And here is a live 1995 recording  by Ronald Smith –

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Chopin the Organist

You can’t get away from Chopin in Warsaw. There’s no escape – from the moment you set foot in the Arrivals Hall of Warsaw Chopin Airport to walking the streets of the Old Town where there are Chopin benches (push the button for a quick blast of some music), and many advertisements for Chopin recitals here, there, and everywhere. Nor would a pianist wish to escape. Chopin is the reason why we are here.

So where to start? We began almost by accident, entering the first Baroque style church encountered on a walk near the Old Town. The Church of the Nuns of the Visitation escaped the devastation suffered by much of the city in WWII. Why is it significant? Because it was here that the fifteen year old Chopin played the organ each Sunday while a pupil at the Warsaw Lyceum.

It’s easy to forget that Chopin was an organist as well as a pianist. When he and George Sand were forced to move to the abandoned monastery in Valdemossa on the island of Majorca during the winter of 1838-1839, they expected to find an organ in the chapel; but no. The Carthusian monks are a silent order. The beautiful chorale-like section in the central part of Scherzo No 3, composed in the monastery where a Pleyel piano eventually was transported, is perhaps a moment of wishful thinking.


After leaving the island, very ill,  Chopin convalesced in Barcelona; moving on to Marseilles, he played an arrangement of a Schubert lied on the organ at the funeral of the operatic tenor Adolphe Nourrit.

Think, too, of the bass line of Chopin’s famous ‘Funeral March’, played on the organ of La Madeleine in Paris at his own funeral. In the piano version, the LH intones a solemn B flat, D flat, B flat, D flat etc. Now imagine that transcribed for organ, played by feet on the pedalboard. Left foot on B flat, right foot on D flat, left, right, left, right …. and the posssibility of a physically inspired origin of this grim march becomes apparent.

Chopin’s love of fellow organist Bach’s music is well documented. A copy of the Preludes and Fugues for Clavier travelled with Chopin to Majorca. Chopin’s musical instruction at the Warsaw Conservatory included hours of lessons each week in counterpoint. The polyphonic episode in the 4th Ballade shows Chopin’s mastery of the technique.

Below – Chopin’s Funeral March, played on the organ.



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Down and out in Warsaw and Vienna? Chopin, Scherzo No 1 in B Minor

Chopin’s four Scherzi are currently in my repertoire, each written at an interesting stage in the composer’s life. The genial fourth scherzo, Op 54,  was composed during a summer spent at Nohant with Aurore Dudevant, better known as the writer George Sand; the third scherzo, again with George Sand present, was composed during the winter months of 1838-1839 in a deserted monastery on the island of Majorca. The confident second scherzo, Op 31 , dates from 1837 in Paris before George Sand was a part of Chopin’s life, and likewise the first Scherzo Op 20 pre-dates their relationship. I love them all, and they are very satisfying to perform as a set, each one with its own character. But I’ll admit to a penchant for the first scherzo, as it was the first ‘big’ piece of Chopin which I learnt as a teenager. And also, its beginnings are shrouded in mystery, so I find it intriguing.

It was published in 1835 when Chopin was established in Paris, having arrived there in 1831. The dedicatee, Thomas Albrecht, was attaché to the Saxon diplomatic mission in Paris. But when and where was it composed? Like many early published works, it was written in advance of Chopin’s arrival and establishment as one of the French capital’s leading pianists. Publications followed Chopin’s success, in London, Paris and Leipzig, although interestingly Chopin’s Trio Op 9 was first published in London in 1830.

It has been suggested that the first scherzo might date from 1830-1831. November 2 1830 marks the date of Chopin’s departure from Warsaw – never to return. Later that month, the November Uprising erupted, an armed rebellion against Russian forces. Chopin learnt of this via letter; has friend Titus, who was travelling with him, turned back to Warsaw. Chopin travelled on alone, spending Christmas in Vienna, wandering around St Stephen’s Cathedral (below). One wonders if that influenced the choice of a Polish Christmas carol as the basis for the peaceful central section. The open of the Scherzo is shocking – literally – two unexpected loud chords, like an unprovoked slap in the face, before the RH hurriedly claws it’s way up the piano in a repeated frenzy, the LH trying to check and restrain its impetuosity. Interludes of a more rhetorical nature, full of questioning and despair, alternate with the headlong rush, until all is calmed by the central section. But those two chords break in again and the frenzy is resumed. A final coda builds to a shattering climax, with an agonised chord pounded repeatedly before a chromatic scale rips up the piano to the final, emphatic chords.

I’m in Warsaw as I write, soaking up Polish culture and immersing myself in Chopin’s life and times. More anon.


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On Wagner’s Birthday – Liebestod – from Tristan und Isolde – Wagner/Liszt

Following  April 23rd’s post, written on the joint birthdays of Prokofiev and Shakespeare, today’s post is written on Richard Wagner’s birthday, and the piece is the Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, transcribed for the piano by Liszt. A double dose of the Romantic piano, both in subject matter and musical style, as the grieving but rapturous Isolde dies by the body of her beloved Tristan at the conclusion of Wagner’s opera, in a blaze of chromatic harmony.

Liszt was an adept transcriber of other people’s music, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique  in 1833 after its premiere in Paris, all of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Schubert songs, Bach cantata movements, instrumental pieces and countless operatic themes. Operatic fantasies and paraphrases tended to include original material as well as the opera’s best-known  melodies, such as those found in the Rigoletto Paraphrase.But some transcriptions were almost verbatim adaptations for piano, and this is one of them.

Liszt was a skilled orchestrator and conductor himself, honing his skills while     Kappellmeister at the court of  Carl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Weimar, from 1848-1861. Not only that, but Liszt championed the music of Wagner, conducting numerous operatic performances; he knew Wagner’s style from the perspective of the composer’s orchestral soundworld.

In the Liebestod transcription, Liszt translates Wagner’s shimmering strings and Isolde’s aria into quiet tremolandi for piano accompanying the soprano’s line, which is projected with a cantabile, singing touch amidst a swirling texture of quasi-polyphonic complexity. There are important counter-melodies to project, and chords to be voiced judiciously. The music gradually builds in a series of ever-impassioned sequences until a shattering, ecstatic climax engulfs us all, both the performer and audience. As a solo pianist confined to ten fingers, one can almost feel Liszt’s frustration as he strives to get the maximum sound from the instrument, with pounded chords in both hands trying desperately to emulate the sound of a huge orchestra playing at full strength. Slowly and gradually the music subsides into blissful exaltation as Isolde slips away to join her lover in death.

Dare I point out, dear Liszt, that the final D sharp of the oboes in the penultimate bar really should be heard as a tie with all other instruments lifting briefly, as per the orchestral score? Try releasing all notes except a treble clef D sharp momentarily in between the final two bars, re-pedal, then play the last chord. Just a thought.

Two performances to enjoy – Horowitz, and then Hamelin, where the score can be followed.

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